Ordinarily, I don't fool with Wall Street. It goes its way; I go mine. But recently Wall Street crashed into my life, and I want it out. I'd heard about hostile takeovers, corporate raids and leveraged buyouts. Now that I've experienced their consequences, I want them outlawed.
I live in Cleveland Park, where we eat regularly and where, until lately, we had a Safeway. It was nothing like those temples in the suburbs that look like the Kennedy Center and stock beluga caviar. It was small, its narrow aisles leading to constant carriage gridlock. Stock-gaps caused neighborhood wags to dub it "the Soviet Safeway."
Washingtonian magazine said it was "the worst Safeway in the city." I don't do enough comparison-shopping to know for sure but having a time or two searched in vain for whole wheat flour and cloves, I could believe it.
The assistant manger, an extrovert called Walter Valentini, who was kind of our host at the store, filling us in on local gossip and the comings and goings of our more prominent customers, took me aside and asked, "Tell me, do you think this is the worst Safeway in Washington?"
"Probably," I told him, "but the company is good."
That was the truth. Maybe you couldn't get everything you needed all the time, but you did get companionship. We had the two Alices, one more amiable than the other, black-eyed Georgia and, of course, Wally, so prized by his customers that they once took up a collection to send him to his Italian homeland.
In summer, you would see some of the older ladies from the Kennedy-Warren, wearing their lace-edged crochet gloves and their veiled straw hats anxiously browsing among the canned soup. In the winter, they kept Wally pretty busy, as he regarded it as part of his duty to ferry them over snowbanks.
For some of them, it seemed that the shopping expedition had as much to do with recreation as sustenance. You would hear them in what was laughingly called the Express Lane chatting about the weather, their ailments and the fortunes of the baseball teams in the hometowns they left so long ago. Even the Yuppies yielded to the general good humor and had a word or two.
Things were rocking along in this fashion until one black day in September when we read a posting on the front door. The Safeway was to be closed on Oct. 19, which was, ironically, the day that Wall Street got what was coming to it. A meeting, hugely attended, indignantly addressed, was held in the library on the corner of Connecticut and Macomb. We circulated petitions to the mayor, to Safeway, to the City Council.
We also found a villain. The authors of our distress were the Hafts, father Herbert, son Robert, who already owned enough companies to satisfy most people and who apparently woke up one morning with a terrific appetite for the Safeway grocery chain.
They began by buying up 6 percent of Safeway stock and then had to be bought off. Somehow, in ways not clear to me, while making off with my corner grocery, they made off with $140 million. This, I am told, is greenmail. Greenmail, my eye. That's blackmail, and I hope that in 1988 we call it that.
If the Safeway were a fruitstand and some hood came along and demanded protection money, we'd call the cops. On Wall Street, it's considered "healthy capitalism." I don't know if Haft, pere and fils, would have stocked Elberta peaches and raspberry vinegar, as I used to ask Wally to do, but I still don't think they should get $140 million for coveting their neighbors' goods and disrupting our lives.
Our outcry brought a stay. Our Safeway was reprieved until Thanksgiving. As the days dwindled down, it became truly the Soviet Safeway, with a few lonely goods on its shelves. Some of us wondered whether Mikhail Gorbachev, whose visit was imminent, might tour, brought thither by some unwary State Department guide bent on showing him our superior food-distribution methods. It would have been good glasnost, including the sight of a conspicuous victim of unbridled capitalist greed. But it was not to be. The Safeway expired on Dec. 2, and he didn't arrive until the 7th.
Now, help has come. Brookville has moved in and filled the shelves. I stopped by the other morning and was struck with the quiet. No nattering at the registers. No happy greetings. Of course, we don't know each other, yet. Some people don't even know they can go back to walking to their grocery store.
I had a word with the new manager, Yashar Sherazi. It was encouraging. Brookville is a family business, started by brothers. They have one other store. Nothing here to make the Hafts hungry.
In the wake of the crash, Wall Street is pondering where it went wrong. We of Cleveland Park could tell it a thing or two.